Lori Garver is launching her Washington exposé into a separate orbit. In a new biography published on Tuesday, the NASA veteran who advanced to become the agency’s No. 2 during the Obama administration is frank about her struggles with dishonest contractors, dim-witted bureaucrats, and self-serving politicians. She also criticizes NASA leadership for putting up a fight against space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who may replace their valued projects with more inventive and affordable alternatives.
The Constellation space vehicle program, which failed after four years and billions of dollars, was canceled as part of Garver’s attempts to reform NASA as deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013. Garver said that his efforts were thwarted by “the trillion-dollar military-industrial complex.” She writes in Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age, which she shared with POLITICO before publication, “I was attacked by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, by the aerospace industry, and by hero astronauts for proposing an agenda that didn’t suit their parochial interests.”
Garver, who joined NASA in 1996 and held a series of positions of increasing responsibility, accuses her former boss Charles Bolden, the first Black NASA administrator, of numerous leadership failures, including overseeing a decline in astronaut diversity and serving the interests of powerful interests and their congressional backers.
She denounces the aerospace behemoths Boeing and Lockheed Martin as well as their suppliers for enticing Congress and NASA officials with the $23 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, which she worries would bankrupt the space program before it can send men back to the moon.
Garver charges politicians from both parties for continuing to prioritize their own political agendas above NASA’s. The former Florida senator Bill Nelson, who represented the Kennedy Space Center and is now in charge of NASA, is cited by the speaker as one of the main obstacles to change. She claims that Nelson “headed the resistance” against the Commercial Crew Program, revolutionary public-private cooperation that ended in 2020 with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon resuming American astronauts’ access to the International Space Station from U.S. territory for the first time in a decade.
According to Garver, the United States would still be reliant on Russia to send astronauts to the space station if Nelson and Bolden had their way a decade ago. Nelson, she adds, “pressed” the SLS on us together with then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The SLS is a taxpayer-funded mega-moon rocket that is years behind schedule, billions over budget, and scheduled to make its maiden unmanned flight this summer.
In its fourth try, NASA had to abruptly end the SLS practice countdown on Monday, which included fuelling the rocket. In an interview, Garver said that “people don’t want to be critical of our existing leadership.” “And Administrator Nelson has replaced Senator Nelson. It is still unclear if we have created anything that is sustainable in deep space at this time.
But is she worried about how Nelson, Bolden, or the other people she worked closely with would react to her book? Garver told POLITICO, “I’m not passive-aggressive. They already have. They’ve stopped me from doing stuff. They will obviously not like it, in my opinion. Garver said that she had no idea Nelson would be in charge of the space program when her book was published. When he was appointed, “I was almost through with this book,” she said. “It did cause me to stop. My publisher was ecstatic. Oh, dude, I think.
Through a spokeswoman, NASA and Nelson refused to address the allegations and critiques made in Garver’s book. Requests for a response from Bolden and the SLS program’s principal contractors also went unanswered.
Garver, who managed the Air Line Pilots Association after leaving NASA, also specifically criticizes the “male-dominated” and “military ethos” of the agency. Only two of the 134 Space Shuttle flights were led by a woman, she writes in the book, and all 14 NASA administrators have been males. The promise to put a woman on the moon, made first by the Trump administration and now by the Biden White House, is similarly dismissed by her as nothing more than a “commercial gimmick.”
Women have also been publicly disparaged, she says, despite her own success in advancing up the ladder. In the book, Garver, 61, claims that “those who disagreed with my beliefs assaulted me with foul, sexist language, depredation, and bodily threats.” I’ve been called a mother-king b-tch, an ugly whore, and a c-nt; told I need to find a boyfriend; and questioned about my menstruation and menopause.
Garver also attributes a large portion of NASA’s troublesome track record of initiatives that are years behind schedule and cost billions more than anticipated to “group thought” at NASA and in Congress, where the majority of members are white males. Nelson is the target of her special attacks. She describes how the then-senator opposed the public-private Commercial Crew initiative, which helped to fund the SpaceX Crew Dragon while promoting the SLS.
In the book, Garver describes Nelson as “a lifelong politician best known for his out-of-this-world political junket in 1986: a taxpayer-funded flight on the Space Shuttle.” (As an astronaut, Bolden served as the mission’s pilot.) Many of those who disagreed with my views verbally and physically harassed and threatened me.
Years later, she claims, she became the personal focus of then-Senator Nelson’s wrath for pushing for the opportunity for private enterprises to provide alternatives to NASA’s conventional government-run strategy. For instance, she recalls how then-Senator Nelson “shouted at me to keep your kid Elon in line” in a private meeting after Musk publicly said that he might assist in fixing NASA’s issues.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in 2021, she charges Nelson with distorting history. Not surprisingly, the new NASA Administrator has a different memory of his performance, the author notes. The 79-year-old is making an effort to encircle himself in the Commercial Crew banner. In an incident, Garver recalls from 2020, when she served as Joe Biden’s presidential campaign’s space policy advisor, the animosity between the two Democrats is clearly evident.
She claims that Nelson, who was a former senator at the time, forced her to decline an invitation to a 2020 campaign event announcing SpaceX’s Crew Dragon’s imminent first mission to the space station.
“Liars to them”
However, Garver saves some of her toughest criticism for the SLS, the Boeing, and Lockheed Martin spacecraft and mega-rocket that NASA is relying on to send men back to the moon by 2025. She criticizes its impossibility to be reused, the outrageous expected cost of each launch, and the self-serving government purchase structure that favors current companies and initiatives.
In an interview, she said that there wouldn’t have been a book if SLS had taken off for the price and in the time frame we were promised they would. The SLS project is mocked in the novel as the “Senate Launch System” by Garver, who has been vocally criticizing it as wasteful for years.
Even though taxpayers spent twice as much for parts in a system that may never fly more than a few times, she claims that the political pressure to keep manufacturing lines running was intense. She describes how, despite knowing that what they were proposing could not be achieved, the bureaucracy launched the program from the ashes of the Constellation endeavor.
According to her, NASA employees from the program offices, centers, legislative affairs, general counsel, and even public relations had been secretly working against us. “I considered how many individuals in the room and around the nation were overjoyed by the news, not realizing that their leadership had misled them about what was possible. The next ten years would be devoted by thousands of individuals to the development of unsustainable systems.
She said, “It was simpler to continue doing the same thing while billing the government more and more money.” “This procedure is still in progress today.” She criticizes NASA under the Biden administration for continuing to invest $40 billion in a space transportation system that is not reusable and, according to the latest estimates, would cost at least $4 billion each launch.
She says that “the insanity persists” since “the Biden administration is now the third administration to disregard such truths.” She points out, for instance, that NASA is paying Aerojet Rocketdyne $150 million per engine to rebuild engines for the SLS that were originally created by the government as part of the Space Shuttle program.
The taxpayers will spend $600 million every launch on engines that they previously paid for since the SLS discards four of them per launch, according to Garver. In comparison, SpaceX charges $90 million for a Falcon Heavy launch that includes reusable engines.
Elon Musk-themed song
If Escaping Gravity is a critique of Washington’s business as usual, it also sometimes reads like a love letter to wealthy “space barons” Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the creator of Blue Origin, and Richard Branson, the creator of the Virgin space firms. Garver claims in the book that “my tale is tough to distinguish from Elon’s” because “without him and SpaceX, I wouldn’t have been able to carry off much of a revolution at NASA.”
She also calls Bezos “relaxed, curious, and humorous,” and says that chatting to him is “like talking to a buddy I’ve known for years.” As the “most naturally charismatic of the billionaire space barons,” she describes Branson. Whether we think highly of the rich space giants as people is irrelevant, she says. “By all appearances, they are abiding by the rules, and instead of funding space enterprises, they might invest all of their funds on creature amenities that have a little economic impact here at home.”
She insists that she is not personally motivated to support the space millionaires. She told POLITICO, “I have never worked for any of those men.” I never took a penny from them, they said. Garver is the head of a group called Earthrise that promotes the use of satellites in the fight against global warming. She has connections to the space industry financially. She claims not to be a stakeholder in any of Bessemer Venture Partners’ firms, despite the fact that she works there as an executive. She formerly served on the board of Maxar Technologies, a firm that develops space technology, and she now serves on the board of the Luxembourg-based space photography business Hydrostat.
In an interview, she said, “I’m not conflicted.” It’s not my cup of tea.
A new cycle
Still, she describes what she believes are more promising futures for NASA in the book. Garver is upbeat about the prospect of a new era in the space program as a result of her struggles. Thankfully, she says, “furry animals have continued to diversify as the dinosaurs consume the last of the leaves on the high treetops.” She applauds NASA’s choice of SpaceX to construct the Human Landing System for the Artemis moon mission and applauds legislative pressure to expand the field of competitors in the future.
She also believes that NASA will ultimately be more receptive to SpaceX’s currently under construction reusable Starship. She says, referring to the NASA rocket, spacecraft, and plans for a tiny orbiting space station around the moon, “If successful, Starship alone could conduct the whole Artemis mission without SLS, Orion, or the Lunar Gateway, at a much-reduced cost and greater capabilities.”
For human space travel, she continues, “the change to a more sustainable design once again seems in reach.”
Garver cautions that the powerful interests, however, are not going to give up. She states in the book that “[t]he conventional players haven’t retired; they are producing new pieces while relishing and feeding the fratricide.” “In my opinion, in order to ensure lasting development, we still need to keep an eye on the ball. The parties involved in bringing us SLS and Orion have a strong interest in keeping them safe.
She told POLITICO that she worries that this mentality still pervades too much of the political process: “Oh, we really need to do it in a manner that employs these friends of mine or these corporations have strong ties with these members of Congress therefore therefore it should be supported.” That shouldn’t be relevant in any way.
She said, “The aerospace industry has been quite effective in keeping those government contracts carefully controlled for the military-industrial complex. They have every reason to do so. The framework supports that. She said that in order to overcome political pressure, government employees have to become tougher: “The duty is to do the absolute best with public funds.” It isn’t to line our friends’ nests with feathers.